What the commuter saw : 11-13th September 2017

The weather has continued to be dominated by the cumulonimbus capillatus, and their associated torrential downpours, which characterised my previous post: Colchester landscapes – “the Gates of Hell”. Bright sunshine, albeit accompanied by a cold wind, is abruptly switched off and the heavens open. On Monday I was examining a PhD at UCL on Gower Street, London, and in the course of an afternoon’s examination the view from the window must have been blotted out by monsoon rains at least five times. The journey home to Colchester courtesy of Abellio Greater Anglia offered some fairly spectacular cloud formations – most threatening or actually offering torrential rain. This was some towering cumulus congestus to the north shortly after leaving Shenfield:

The view west towards Billericay produced some spectacularly confused but glorious evening skies:

As we left Chelmsford heading east, the skies over New Hall School looked heavy with rain and were evidently already dumping vast quantities on the land beneath:

Heading into Kelvedon, the skies to the south were giving birth to more cumulonimbus capillatus anvils:

By the time we were approaching Marks Tey the anvil had grown to immense size:

It was also moving steadily towards Colchester, which set me estimating rates of drift, distance between station and home, likelihood of having to swim up the hill homewards like a salmon…

In the event I just made it home before the skies opened once more (though I was in such a sweaty and breathless state that I was not fit to be let loose on polite company) 🙂

Today the weather looked more benign, with what appeared to be fair-weather cumulus populating the sky, albeit accompanied by a very strong wind – so strong that my train from Colchester was cancelled because a tree had fallen on the overhead lines further north towards Norwich:

This view of such apparently settled and gentle weather just south of Witham was, however, hugely misleading. After arriving at our Docklands Campus I was welcomed with a mild drenching, then throughout the day it was as though someone was switching the shower full on, then abruptly switching it off again. My colleague, Stuart Connop, described how his wife had been waiting on a station platform the other day and when a torrential downpour occurred, she had seen someone shuffle sideways by about 3 metres and remain totally dry while the rest of the platform had turned into a river – such is the localised nature of a cumulonimbus capillatus rainstorm.
At the end of the day I walked out to the Royal Albert Dock, which forms the southern edge of our Docklands Campus, to see a double rainbow off to the east formed by a combination of the sun setting over Canary Wharf to the west and the light rain overhead which was just enough to need the umbrella while I pulled out my camera:

The planes landing at London City Airport were passing through the rainbow’s arch when coming into land:

Meanwhile the clouds boiling up around their approach run looked increasingly spectacular……

Looking into the heart of the clouds it was possible to see the roiling air currents, but also the remnants of the rainbow caught like a fly in the web of falling rain:

….although there is something remarkably zen and calming about gazing into the heart of such a cloud:

Clouds – never a dull moment.

Colchester landscapes – “The Gates of Hell”

A day of occasional light showers ended in a blaze of glory over Colne Meadows, with the setting sun being swallowed up by a whole bank of cumulonimbus capillatus anvils which dominated the western sky. I was driving back from B&Q at the time so could do little about this glorious display, but on arriving home I leaped onto my bike and went haring down the hill in the gathering gloom to the Colne Meadows bridge, tripod and new camera strapped to various parts of the bike but convinced I’d missed the whole spectacle.

Arriving breathless but relieved, it was clear that the display had not entirely ended, plus the mist had risen quite suddenly over the meadows to create a rather soft-focus ambience (just how soft focus I was to discover later). Setting up the camera on the tripod I prepared to start capturing a series of stunning images – only to realise that I couldn’t recall how to switch off focus tracking nor manual aperture settings, and in the gathering gloom I couldn’t even see the letters on the various control buttons. The perils of a new camera… After fumbling round frantically for a time – all the while aware that the scene before me was fading – I managed to establish control of the camera and proceeded to rattle off some pictures:

I was doing this from the cycle path which runs alongside the main road leading to Colchester (North) Station, and while I was taking my photographs I was joined by a succession of cyclists and walkers who stopped, took out their smartphones, and proceeded to record the view. Each in turn commented on how amazed they were by the scene unfolding across the meadow, and one commented that it was: “..like looking into the Gates of Hell”. One individual even skidded his car to a halt on the central reservation having just turned off the roundabout, then ran across the road to photograph the scene on the inevitable smartphone before asking: “That is fog, isn’t it? It’s just that the missus wouldn’t believe me.”

Clambering down over a stile and into the meadow itself, I blessed the fact that the new camera offered manual focusing using a focusing ring on the lens barrel because the automatic focusing just couldn’t cope with the combination of gloom and rising mist:

The various numulonimbus capillatus anvils had separated by now, with several heading north but one for some reason heading south:

The last anvil sort of collapsed and lost much of its anvil shape:

The one drifting south was meanwhile joined by a smaller more distant anvil as the mist rose higher and became steadily thicker:

Turning back to the large cloud to the north, I was struck by how much thicker the mist had become in that direction and thus how indistinct the image was becoming:

Then I had a look at the graduated filter on the front of the lens and realised that it was now coated with a thick film of mist droplets – the ultimate soft-focus trick of professional photographers..! Having wiped the filter dry, the scene leaped into much sharper focus…

To the north, across the Colne and up the hill, the lights of Colchester Station and my favourite Platform 3 were forming large halos of light in the mist:

By now it was becoming so dark and so thick with mist that it really was proving very difficult to keep the camera filter clear enough to focus on anything even using manual focus, so I took a couple more of the large shapeless cloud and called it a night, leaving the meadows to the faint cry of a fox roaming somewhere in the gloom:

Hmmmm…. Thick mist, heavy dew fall – does this mean that tomorrow is going to be bright and sunny? I hope so, because I have a peat bog to construct using Angel Delight…. (more on this in due course, hopefully) 🙂

Chichester – planes, predators and paintings : Part 2

Part 2 of this blog is a pretty eclectic affair, beginning and ending with one sort of aerial predator, then involving various other sorts of aerial predator, a great number of cafe racer motorbikes, a view to die for (and I nearly did…), a chipmunk, and Jumbo. To recap from Blog Part 1, we were in Chichester celebrating a special family birthday and had enjoyed, amongst other things, some glorious landscapes and some wonderful aerial displays:

On our second-to-last evening I had spotted something rather exciting soaring round the spire of Chichester Cathedral, so early next morning I headed off to the cathedral grounds, in hope. Having settled myself down with a good view of the spire I then spent 20 minutes watching increasing numbers of people walk past the cathedral on their way to work as the city began to wake up and start the day’s business. Then I spotted what looked like a small lump offsetting the regular symmetry of the stonework pattern high up on the cathedral spire but couldn’t convince myself that it was anything significant, or anything more than a pigeon, even fully zoomed in with my camera. After another ten minutes I was just about to give up (given that we were due to visit the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth that morning) when suddenly this lump launched itself into the sky, screaming furiously. This was no pigeon:

Various things then happened noisily behind the tower and spire before a shape soared out from behind the spire and shot off directly overhead – an adult peregrine…

This was all I had time for before we headed off for our appointment with the excellent Historic Dockyard and some mast-climbing for daughter. Still, the nautical interlude gave me the opportunity to peruse some rigging options that might be applied to my little boat Merlin (see her tale elsewhere):

Arriving back that evening after a thoroughly enjoyable day at the Dockyard (I highly recommend the pear and almond tart in the cafe next to HMS Victory 🙂 ) I headed back to the cathedral and even as I approached I could hear the peregrine young, who had been reared on the cathedral tower, screaming like angry harpies. Focusing quickly up at the tower I was just able to catch the parent pass the prey to a youngster before the youngster flew off with its prize past its sibling:

Sibling was not pleased about this, so carried out a successful ambush:

This left the original sibling feeling pretty outraged, so when the parent arrived carrying more food but proceeded to eat it on one of the tower spires, the youngster obviously decided that one ambush is as good as another:

Having banjaxed the parent and fled with the food, the youngster settled on a parapet and tried to enjoy its prize, but several further attempted ambushes eventually resulted in a retreat to somewhere more obscure, thus ending my peregrine-watching for the day, and indeed it brought the curtain down on our stay in Chichester:

However…. so taken was I again by the view from the South Downs ridge as we drove back along it on the way home, that the following Sunday found me setting off before dawn from Colchester, heading back to Sussex armed with paints, pastelles, pencils and various essential accessories. On Google Maps I’d spotted a cafe at the end of the ridge, so I reckoned I could park there and then walk back to the view with the intention of photographing and painting it. What I hadn’t bargained on was the fact that it was a gloriously sunny Sunday and the Whiteways Cafe is a biker-meet. There must already have been more than 50 bikes of all breeds, styles and states of repair in that car park although it was still only 8 a.m. Grabbing a bacon sandwich from the cafe, I sat amidst the bikers contemplating my next move and looking for ‘classic’ (i.e. slow) models that I had once owned – a Honda and a Moto Guzzi. After an unsuccessful search – everything now is sleek, flash and, as I was to discover, very loud – I staggered off up the road, laden with photography and art gear. Meanwhile bikes screamed past in an endless banshee wail, making the most of the beautifully straight road as it runs along the crest of the Downs. Having arrived at the view which had dragged me half way across the country yet again…

…I was disconcerted to find that there was the narrowest of roadside verges beyond which there was a steep drop of some seven or eight feet down the road-bank into the field below. The bank was smothered in a thick tangle of traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba), bramble (Rubus fruticosus) and nettle (Urtica dioica). Carving out something of a precarious perch for myself within this undergrowth – indeed only held in place on the bank by this tangle – there was no denying that the view was glorious, both in front and behind:

Unfortunately not only was I balanced like a tightrope walker, I was also inches from the road along which seemingly hundreds of bikes were thundering and screaming past, all day. It felt like trying to sit and paint serene landscapes while sitting in the middle of a Formula 1 race. Soothing and lyrical it was not.
My first attempt at capturing this landscape turned to dust, quite literally, when the pastelles I was using (a HomeBargains special) just crumbled across the paper resulting in something less than light and lyrical:

So I turned to my paintbox and a new sheet of paper. Word of advice: Never under-estimate the potential impact of a gift given to a seemingly un-enthusiastic teenager. This painting tin was given to me on my 14th birthday. It’s still my favourite and still being used almost 50 years later:

Now balancing paints, water, brushes, drawing board and the occasional sandwich while perched precariously above a seven-foot drop was not as conducive to great art as one might wish, and trying to shut out the roaring banshee of the bikes hurtling past a mere three inches from my left ear was proving increasingly difficult:

I suppose the result was inevitable. A cafe racer who had been up and down a few times came roaring back, apparently this time aiming to pass as close to my little camping chair as he possibly could. The noise, and the shock, resulted in me doing a nose-dive straight down the bank in a tangle of traveller’s joy, paints, nettles, painting water, brushes, brambles, startled artists and folding camping chair. I still bear the scars on my shin, but fortunately the tangle of vegetation acted as something of a safety-net – albeit a prickly and stinging net. Having disentangled myself and now being down in the field, I thought I might as well make the best of a bad job and take a panorama photo from the edge of the maize stand, looking over a rather beautiful poppy field:

Walking round and up onto the verge again, I was able to collect my scattered thoughts and brushes and paints, finally completing the sketch an hour or so later:

The following weekend we decided to go back to Chichester again – you can tell that we were all rather taken with it – and we decided to visit the nearby Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, based on the old RAF Tangmere Sector Station – one of the key stations during the Battle of Britain:

It proved to be one of the best, most involving, and in some ways most moving, aviation museum I’ve ever visited. Daughter enjoyed flying in a couple of simulators then fiddling with all the knobs, dials and levers on various radio sets, as well as having a go at morse code, while I discovered a Link Trainer – a flight simulator from the war and immediate post-war, used to train pilots in blind flying and navigation. The ‘crab’ thing on the left tracks your flight progress across a chart on the chart table. I was in charge of the link trainer in our CCF at school, so it was delightful to see one in full working order again:

I also had the opportunity to sit once more in the cockpit of a Chipmunk trainer (minus wings). I had last flown in one of these lovely little planes nearly 50 years ago at RAF Woodvale – oddly enough, the same type of aircraft and the same RAF station that is the very final entry in my father’s RAF Pilot Log Book at the end of the war…

By far the most moving things I found, however, were two framed pictures. They contain the collected signatures of all RAF pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain. What shocked – and moved – me was just how few there were, yet they changed the course of the Second World War:

Afterwards, heading into Chichester, we had a very pleasant afternoon, and I discovered that the city’s patron saint is St. Richard, who looks pretty severe in his statue but he not only argued with the king on behalf of the poor of Sussex, he is also reputed to have penned the prayer that ends with some of the most famous and beautiful lines of poetry in the English prayer book:

We ended our visit by going into the cathedral just as the choir practice was beginning, so we sat for a while as the glorious singing soared up into the cathedral tower to mingle with the faint cries of the peregrines outside:

Just a week later, back in Colchester, daughter was taking part in a film-making school which was filming in the shadow of ‘Jumbo‘ – the great Victorian water tower which sits right on the crown of the hill on which Colchester is built. When we arrived to collect daughter, the film-school people casually mentioned that filming had been somewhat interrupted by a horde of birders looking at a peregrine on Jumbo…. More peregrines..? Surely not… Then sure enough a white, not brown (as it would have been had it been a kestrel), shape appeared on a ledge high up on Jumbo. Zooming in on this white blob with the new (well, second-hand) Lumix FZ1000 I had bought 1 hour earlier to replace my poor battered, faithful but now-cranky Lumix FZ150, the very first photos in this new camera were indeed of Colchester’s own peregrine…

So now the summer adventures are over – a summer full of aerial and aviation surprises.

Thoughts are already turning to the Minories Christmas Market and the Minories and FirstSite Christmas Makers Market…. Look out for announcements soon about cards printed from my artworks and photography… 🙂

Chichester – planes, predators and paintings : Part 1

A few days down in Sussex staying in Chichester to celebrate a significant family birthday produced a richness of experiences far beyond what was anticipated and ultimately resulted in two further return trips – each just day-trips, it was that good…
The journey down from Colchester took us along a glorious viewpoint across the South Downs and past the entrance to Arundel Castle, but as I was driving these were just brief glimpses. Here, however, is the view I merely glimpsed on this occasion:

Like Colchester, Chichester has its settled origins dating from Roman times (Colchester = Camulodunum; Chichester = Noviomagus Reginorum) although both were significant centres for pre-Roman British tribes. From the 11th Century onwards the heart of Chichester was the cathedral. There’s a lovely walk around part of the remaining city walls, and an information board gives a real sense of what the early city must have looked like (all credit to the un-named artist):

The cathedral is a beautifully proportioned building:

It nevertheless has a number of unexpected features. Firstly, it is one of the few cathedrals in the country to have a bell tower standing separate from the rest of the cathedral. It also has a complete and serenely cooling cloister:

But it has other surprises too, as I was later to discover…

As the weather was so glorious we opted to head for the beach at West Wittering, as recommended by the very helpful agent of the cottage we were renting. Having left the extended family happily splashing about in the shallows of the beach, I headed off inland to investigate an interesting-looking wetland – clearly a remnant dune-slack area. Much of the dune-slack had now been converted to wheat field:

The wheat was just approaching the point where it begins to turn head-down and ripen:

Amidst the wheat but particularly along the fringes of the field there was an array of modern wheat-field ‘weeds’, including oats, common mallow (Malva sylvestris) and field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis):

There were also many flowering heads of cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) which acted as landing platforms for a variety of insects:

These included the common red soldier beetle (Rhagonycha fulva), probably the marmalade hover fly (Episyrphus balteatus) and possibly a gall wasp:

Then my attention was caught by something rather larger emerging from the fenced-off wetland area:

At first I wasn’t sure, but then as it made its way round the far edge of the field I caught a view which suggested I was watching a marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus), a species I’d last seen more than 15 years ago while moored on Merlin close to the reedbeds of Hickling Broad:

This was exciting, but then my ears caught a faint but unmistakable sound – a Merlin engine. Looking across the wheat field I could see a dot in the sky, heading towards the coast:

Its course brought it somewhat closer and, as it banked, there was the unmistakable elliptical wing shape of a Spitfire (the iconic elliptical wing designed, not by R J Mitchell as many believe, but by his associate Beverley Shenstone):

A beautiful aircraft, a gorgeous sound, and all most unexpected, coming directly on the heels (or tail feathers) of the marsh harrier.

Rejoining the family on the coast, we then moved on to the excellent Billy’s on the Beach at Bracklesham Bay, where we sat outside enjoying the evening sunlight while we tucked into mountains of seafood. Only to be interrupted by the sound of the Merlin engine again, which meant that food was abandoned as I grabbed my camera. We were then treated to the most amazing aerial display over the sea while we sat back with a grandstand view:

Then as it flew low over the beach past us, it became obvious that this was a two-seater Spitfire, with someone in the passenger seat having the time of their life:

In a way, and to some extent, I knew what they were experiencing because back in May my lovely sister had arranged a visit to the RAF Museum at Hendon, and there I was treated to the opportunity of sitting in the cockpit of a Spitfire once the personal plane of Air Vice-Marshall ‘Billy’ Elliott:

I’d been somewhat doubtful about the added experience of actually sitting in a Spitfire compared to simply enjoying its beautiful shape from afar, but I was very surprised to find that it was quite a moving experience. It brought home just how each Battle of Britain pilot fought alone, within the space of their own cockpit, and with such basic (though well-designed) tools. Should you find yourself watching the film Dunkirk, think of this as you watch Tom Hardy juggling fuel, ammunition, distance from home, duty to those below, as well as facing hostile and well-armed enemy aircraft:

Purists will note that I’m holding the spade joystick with completely the wrong hand. When held in the right hand at the top of the grip (the left hand being constantly on the throttle lever on the left wall of the cockpit), the brass firing ring fits snugly under one’s thumb.

In contrast to that of Tom Hardy and the original pilots, my experience was, to some extent, what the passenger in the Spitfire flying over Bracklesham Beach was seeing that evening… provided, that is, their eyes were not still watering from having paid almost £2,500 for the flight, as we discovered later…! Apparently this is the regular flying area for a pair of 2-seater Spitfires based nearby, and despite the price, the waiting list to fly as a passenger is longer than the Great North Road…

Afterwards, replete from Billy’s and having watched the Spitfire and its happy passenger heading off to the airfield in the evening light, we were treated to exhibitions of flying without effort by a flock of black headed gulls (Croicocephalus ridibundus) which settled on the shingle storm-berm of the beach:

Arriving back in Chichester, I was sitting in our bedroom gazing out from the open window towards the cathedral and I realised that the high-pitched whistling scream which I’d been hearing regularly during our stay was not, in fact, coming from a baby pigeon under our eaves but was in fact coming from the direction of the cathedral, and was therefore very much louder than I’d originally realised. A quick dash out in the fading light to the cathedral resulted in a brief glimpse of something potentially rather exciting:

Of that, and more – including chipmunks, motorbikes, predators and painting accidents – look out for the next blog….

Langholm Moor : from Essex to Galloway

It’s been a while because things have been fairly busy for the past few months, but although there have been no posts, the photo archive has continued to accumulate. This includes the usual commuter photos following the changing landscapes and seasons between Colchester and London, but there have also been longer trips to western Scotland, Edinburgh and Chichester. I’ve decided to work in reverse order and post one of the most recent trips first – a visit to Langholm Moor for the IUCN UK Peatland Programme and the Crighton Carbon Centre in order to look at ways of restoring the carbon-capturing capacity of the blanket bogs on this estate. The details of the visit itself – fascinating though it was – are not for this blog, although I do want to heap praise on the estate, the Crighton Carbon Centre and the IUCN UK Peatland Programme for the enthusiasm with which the peatland restoration programme is being approached. This blog, on the other hand, captures the landscapes and cloudscapes – and weather – which were encountered during the train journey between Colchester and Lockerbie, plus a couple of landscapes from around Langholm Moor itself.

The route involved going via London, but there were no opportunities for photography during the journey between Colchester and London, so the landscapes begin north of London, on the Virgin West Coast Line. The weather had been typical of a British summer – i.e. wet and windy – but fortunately the featureless nimbostratus weather had drifted off east towards the continent, leaving a more broken, and therefore more dramatic, sky as we sped north-west past Rugby. I think the brown stalks so widespread by this time of year may be oil-seed rape after harvesting.  Meanwhile the wheat had yet to be harvested:

The powerful vortices associated with wind and rain had flattened extensive parts of the various wheatfield crops, and the threatening sky hinted at more to come.

Further north it seemed that the wheat had not suffered so badly, although the skies were equally dramatic.

Indeed it looked as though we were heading towards the heart of the storm at this point.

Then abruptly the sun broke through and there was, albeit briefly, blue sky above.

Just as quickly it vanished again, as though we’d gone through the calm eye of the storm, and the dramatic skies returned.

Then as we approached Oxenholme and Kendal, gateway to the Lake District (where my career started back in the 1970s), the skies abruptly cleared and we were bathed in glorious sunshine. Picture-book stuff:

The line wound round the hills heading up towards Shap and Penrith, mostly giving opportunities for views to the north and north-west. Due west generally meant photographing directly into the sun, limiting the opportunities for photographs through the train window because any dirt or scratches on the train window simply turn into glaring star-bursts which flood the scene and make for interesting artistic images but lousy landscape photography. Every now and then, however, the sun would disappear behind a small cloud and a view due west was possible.

The winding route past the Howgills is always somewhat breath-taking whether from the train or driving along the M6.

North of Penrith the view east across the intervening fields of the Eden Valley towards Cross Fell, highest point on the Pennines, was wonderfully clear.

The air felt clean-washed – as indeed it was after all the rain of the past week.

A bit of detective work using Google Maps, the excellent Magic Map and the so-useful what3words suggests that the grand building on the right may be Barrock Park, just near the M6 Southwaite Services.

Crossing the River Esk just to the north-west of Carlisle, we approached the Scottish border and the clouds began to gather again.

Within 15 minutes of heading west around Gretna Green, the rain and gloom descended…

The prospect of walking the half-mile or so to my hotel from the station in Lockerbie was starting to look less and less attractive.

But then a little ray of sunshine and a little ray of hope. Off to the west as we approached Lockerbie the sky looked brighter.

…and the rain stopped just as I walked out of the station 🙂

Next day we enjoyed glorious views from the top of Langholm Moor. We could see the coast to the west, almost to Edinburgh to the north, Kielder Forest to the east over the border in England, and way south down to the Lake District. The threatened rain very kindly kept away all day, though several spectacular cloud formations (doubtless with drenching rain beneath) circled us during the course of the day.

Then finally, having been dropped off back at Lockerbie Station, the rain returned to provide a fitting coda and sense of symmetry to the whole trip. First it was brief showers as we headed back to Gretna Green and the English border.

The clouds thickened steadily, so it was a good thing that the farms along the route had been busy…

Then finally, crossing the Esk again, the clouds congealed (it’s the only word to describe it) into a thick layer of stratocumulus and the lights went out, leaving the remainder of the journey rather less interesting than the journey north had been.

The South Downs, Chichester, peregrines, Spitfires and painting accidents next time…!

What the Commuter Saw: December 2016

OK, it’s Boxing Day and there’s been no ‘commuter’ photos for December. This is mainly because the weather in December has been pretty damp and miserable without any really breathtaking skies – but there have been a few moments of fun (on days without such fun I have been reduced to tackling the ‘Codeword’ crossword in the Metro – something which my 10-year-old daughter and I subsequently find an entertaining challenge involving much imagination and invention of English vocabulary worthy of Shakespeare).

Early December (specifically 6th December) was characterised by fog, which amazingly didn’t seem to faze Abellio Greater Anglia at all, the chaos arising instead from “adverse rail conditions” – which we all interpreted as ‘leaves on the line’. The fog did make the journey somewhat magical:

All the usual features just vanished into the misterious fogginess and thus looked strangely and dramatically different from their usual appearance…

Even humdrum views developed a new dimension, such as the fields west of Witham, or the Lone Oak east of Shenfield:

The next day saw less fog but more dramatic skies, even with blues skies – for a brief moment – before the clouds once again began to obscure the sun:

The Lone Oak east of Shenfield looked particularly dramatic:

Over the next few days things became somewhat foggy again first thing, but generally brightened up with rather dramatic skies as the morning wore on:

…giving the views towards Galleywood, Billericay and the Lone Oak a particularly striking atmosphere:

Mid-December was pretty miserable, with driving rain sweeping in from the west up the Colne Valley:

Things remained pretty much the same all the way to Chelmsford and the poplar fields at Ingatestone:

Then a distinct change in the weather on 20th December, with a front passing through as altocumulus drifted away eastwards, gave clear blue skies for the first time in many days:

The view over New Hall School, just east of Chelmsford, promised a period of clearer skies but probably much colder ground temperatures (without the insulating layer of cloud):

While the cows in the fields west of Chelmsford breathed steam into the cold morning air:

Then on 22nd December the skies cleared, the wind dropped, but the sunset hinted at wilder things to come as Storm Barbara (Storm Barbabra…??? Barbara is the name of a favourite auntie, not a killer storm, but then I’m no meteorologist so I bow to their more profound insight……….) swung towards the UK like a slingshot. This meant that sunsets over London City Airport were beautifully dramatic. I was joined on the Beckton road bridge by a father and 8-year old (?) son who had apparently been there all day photographing the planes coming into City Airport. My heart went out to the small boy forced to watch planes all day as his father captured the landing planes in “the perfect photograph” – that is until the next plane came into land. I had opened sympathetic discussions with the young boy about Sopwith Camels, SE5as, Spads and Spitfires when he commented dismissively that he “mainly liked modern jets” before photographing the next plane to land. He then corrected his father about the nature of the recently-landed jet, particularly with regard to its normal flight endurance and suggested that the most likely point of departure was Zurich. Clearly I was in the presence of an aviation expert, particularly as the father quietly observed to me, “I’m hoping that we can head off home soon – I’m freezing after being here all day.”

The sunset clouds really were rather glorious:

So I left the father and son duo capturing the final flights of the evening and headed off to Gallion’s Reach DLR Station and thence homewards:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…!!

Restoration monitoring is a voyage, not a journey

Merlin at Fowey

There is much talk nowadays of ‘going on a journey’, or ‘being on a journey’. Peatland restoration is often referred to in such terms. Some of you will know that I own a very small boat called Merlin, and it does seem to me that restoration and restoration monitoring are far more similar to a sailing voyage than any journey on land. To begin with, there are no roads at sea. Just as every site has its own unique characteristics, its own history and its own future trajectory, so every voyage is unique. Many boats may follow the same general route but none will take exactly the same course – unlike following a road or pathway on land.

The Passage Plan
At sea, the first step of any voyage is the passage plan. This involves careful consideration of initial conditions and anticipated circumstances en-route in order to establish the course to be followed for a safe and viable voyage. The passage plan is not, however, a fixed map. The plan sets out a series of courses and course changes which appear to offer the best hope of completing the voyage successfully and safely, but which ultimately may or may not be followed because conditions at sea may prove to differ from those anticipated. The passage plan familiarises the navigator with fixed points along the proposed route, brings into play known variables such as tide height, tidal currents, forecast wind-speed and direction. It may also define alternative safe courses in the event that prevailing conditions should change.

The key thing about a passage plan is that it starts from a fixed known point. This is almost the only certain thing about the plan. Virtually everything after that is based on the circumstances likely to be encountered. The starting point is established using navigation charts – in the case of the UK these would be Admiralty charts. In the US the NOAA provides similar charts. Navigation charts provide a precise position for the point of departure, be it harbour or mooring point, and provide valuable indicators for navigational progress from that starting point – indicators such as leading lights, buoys and other navigational marks.

Example of navigation features and marks which must be negotiated during departure from harbour. By die Mitarbeiter der beteiligten Projekte (OpenSeaMap) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Every peatland restoration programme has a starting point. If habitat restoration is to be undertaken it is reasonable to assume that the site is not currently in good condition, but what exactly is its condition? How is this starting point defined and described? Reading the descriptions of study sites published in scientific journals is a sobering experience. A high proportion of descriptions go no further than assigning the site to an NVC type and accompany this with statements such as “the site has been drained”. Although many of the early ecological papers such as Godwin & Conway (1939) or Ratcliffe & Walker (1958) provide photographs of their study sites, this has become a rare feature of journal papers despite the increased sophistication in visual recording and publishing technology. The use of VR technology should in future even allow readers to have a virtual visit of a study site, but at present such detailed site information appears to be on the wane rather than expanding, a state of affairs which I find both baffling and frustrating.

This should also be a source of profound wider concern, particularly as a brief survey of the audience during my talk revealed that no-one believed the NVC to be sufficient for describing the condition of a peatland site, and only a single person (albeit someone with considerable experience) believed that the Common Standards Monitoring (CSM) scheme for peatlands was sufficient for defining the condition of such sites. Yet these are the ‘standard’ tools by which peatland sites in the UK are described. If there is little or no confidence in these tools, how then is the one fixed point on a restoration (or research) voyage to be defined – namely the starting point? What can be used to provide the accuracy and confidence offered by an Admiralty or NOAA chart?

    Without the equivalent of an Admiralty chart, it is not possible to define adequately the starting point of any restoration programme, nor to interpret adequately any research data obtained for the site.
By Marine Chart Division, National Ocean Service, NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fault does not lie with the NVC, which was developed as a means of categorising the whole spectrum of British vegetation rather than defining condition-states within given vegetation stands. Nor is CSM at fault, because this was developed to identify broad levels of condition which could be assessed rapidly. The fault lies, perhaps, in the assumption that these two descriptive systems are adequate for defining the starting condition of specific sites which are under restoration management or investigation. The IUCN Commission of Inquiry Report has illustrated a set of condition states, but these are somewhat generic (Bain et al., 2011), while I have set out one approach by which site condition can be described more precisely (Lindsay 2010, Appendix 3), but much work remains to be done. Unfortunately, such ‘descriptive’ research does not readily attract research funding so it is difficult to see how development of suitable descriptive systems is to be achieved.

Tides, tidal currents and the shipping forecast
Every voyage has a starting time, and this is often dictated by the state of the tide. Tides are almost the only other certainty within a passage plan because tidal rise and fall for a number of reference ports is a well-established set of data. The precise tide heights and timing for any given day are available from tide-tables published annually for the set of reference ports. The navigator adjusts the height and timing of the tide according to the position of the departure point in relation to the nearest reference ports. It is therefore also important to know the exact location of the departure point in relation to these reference ports otherwise the boat may run aground or be unable to cross a harbour bar.

In the case of our restoration voyage, there may be reference sites against which any monitoring data can be compared, but such comparison only makes sense if the relative condition of the restoration site can be compared effectively with the condition of these reference sites. If the condition of the reference sites is also ill-defined, comparison becomes even harder and potentially more misleading.

On setting out from port on our sailing voyage, we then encounter our next challenge. The thing we are travelling over is itself moving! Tidal currents mean that although we may have a desired trajectory, the tidal current influences our trajectory and may result in us following a somewhat different course to the one we had planned. We anticipate this in our passage plan by referring to a tidal stream atlas. This tells us the direction and strength of the tidal current at different states of the tide – states which are determined from our tide tables and calculations relative to our reference ports. A tidal-stream atlas is less definitive than the tide tables because at any given location at sea there may be localised eddies and other disturbances which can mean that the local current differs from the overall pattern of the tidal stream. Published pilot books can give warning of some well-known anomalies but local conditions on the day can generate such a wide variety of effects that the passage plan can only allow for the most well-documented anomalies. The only practical way of allowing for such local variations is to ensure that a constant watch is made of the boat’s progress during the voyage.

Having decided to sail on a given state of tide, the next factors to take into account in the passage plan are the likely windspeed and direction. These are obtained from the shipping forecast, but unlike the dependable predictions of tide tables and tidal atlas, the shipping forecast can give only the most general indication of anticipated weather conditions. The true conditions will only become evident once the boat leaves the protection of the harbour. It is therefore absolutely vital that accurate readings are taken of the conditions once in the open sea to enable appropriate adjustments to be made to the passage plan. The wind direction may mean that a different course must be adopted in order to make progress, or the direction and speed of the wind may mean that there is a tendency for the boat to drift off-course downwind. These factors, determined by noting the boat’s position over time, may have a major influence on navigational decisions, being used to anticipate our likely course made good as we round critical headlands – rather than being swept onto them. Our new ‘course steered’ makes allowance for these influences, ensuring that our ‘course made good’ follows the desired trajectory.

A plotted course, illustrating the distinction between the ‘course to steer’ and the resulting track,
or ‘course made good’ over the sea-bed, because the mass of moving water forming the tidal stream
drives the boat south while it attempts to sail east.

Similarly, every peatland site already has both an underlying trajectory as well as a set of short-term responses before ever we begin any restoration management. It has its own tidal stream. There are no tidal stream atlases for peatlands but there is the peat archive, which provides a record of what the site has been doing for the past few thousand years. How often is this used – even to examine just the past century or so – as a means of assessing a site’s current trajectory? There is a natural tendency to assume that the current vegetation is what has existed on the site for some time but often a core taken from the uppermost layers of peat will reveal that a very different vegetation was present until quite recently.

Bill Shotyk sampling the uppermost layers of a peat core taken in Shetland to examine
the recent record of lead deposition.

On other occasions a vegetation type may be assumed to have resulted from recent impacts but this assumption may be shown by the peat archive to be incorrect, with the evidence of the peat core revealing that the present vegetation has characterised the site for many centuries or even millennia. Current concerns about Molinia caerulea, for example, may reveal that in certain locations this species is indeed a recent coloniser and is associated with much charcoal resulting from burning, whereas in other locations the archive may reveal that Molinia has been a constant feature for millennia because this is a natural zone of water collection and movement.

Considering the overall direction of the restoration voyage, most areas of peat bog will have an underlying tendency to return to peat bog conditions because this demonstrably is what has prevailed on the site, often for several millennia. This overall tendency can only be deflected by the input of energy, whether in the form of, for example, peat cutting, drainage or burning. Such influences may have an influence lasting centuries in some cases, adding complexity to the underlying trajectory of the bog system, but on cessation of such pressures the bog will generally demonstrate a tendency towards resumption of peat formation. Immediate pressures such as trampling through overgrazing, or even responses to restoration actions, may impose a further set of influences on the trajectory of the bog. These will inevitably interact in much the same way that shifting wind directions and swells from distant storms influence a boat’s course from hour to hour and require careful adjustments of the course to steer in order to be sure that the boat, or bog, follows the desired track. The underlying direction of travel and general character of the original natural state can nevertheless often be determined by even a relatively simple analysis of the peat archive. This is a feature almost unique in terrestrial habitats yet one which is rarely used as a guide.

Navigation is essential for the entire duration of the voyage
Having passed safely beyond the harbour entrance, a wise skipper does not then announce, “The last cardinal marks of the harbour entrance are now astern, the bows are pointing roughly towards the Scillies, so let’s stow away all the charts and continue on this course based only on dead reckoning and hope that we eventually arrive safely in St Mary’s harbour”. Yet this is what generally happens with peatland restoration. Restoration research and monitoring is geared to three, four or, at most, five-year funding programmes. When the funding ends, so does the work, but without ongoing monitoring it is impossible to identify the course subsequently being taken by the site.

In sailing navigation the complexity of the various interactions resulting from the tide, the tidal stream, wind direction, wind strength, the boat and its rigging, and even the skill of the crew, make it vital to determine the boat’s position throughout the voyage in order to ensure that the boat is not drifting off into potential danger. Simply pointing the boat vaguely in the right direction at the point of departure and trusting for the remainder of the voyage only on measurements taken from a boat which is moving through two media which are also moving (wind and water) is the height of folly. Although it is possible to measure wind direction, compass heading and speed through the water accurately while under way, these measurements alone are of limited use to the navigator and become less so as the voyage progresses because it is the ‘course over the ground’ which is the critical thing. These measurements need to be put into some sort of navigational context. An ‘estimated position’ (EP) can be plotted based on the direction and apparent speed of travel for a given period of time – a process known as ‘dead reckoning’ – but the errors resulting from tidal influences, leeway and poor steering compound and multiply over time and can mean that the EP is a considerable distance from the actual position. It is essential that the true position of the boat be determined repeatedly throughout the voyage in order to make sense of the measurements obtained from the navigation instruments. Only by combining these values with a known position is it possible to judge whether the tide is pushing the boat off course, or the wind is causing significant sideways leeway drift, or the helmsman is simply being inattentive.

No competent skipper would therefore dream of attempting a voyage based solely on dead-reckoning because the imponderables are too many and varied. Instead, navigators rely on ‘fixes’ taken at regular intervals based on identified fixed points – a headland, a distant church spire, the sun at noon, or the stars – in order to confirm the boat’s position on the chart. Today, of course, GPS is commonly used to determine position, but the process is essentially the same as traditional fixes because the satellites have become the known points. The calculated ‘course to steer’ is then combined with dead reckoning to keep the boat roughly on course until the next ‘fix’, but if we have no chart how is a ‘fix’ ever to be obtained?

Establishing a navigational ‘fix’ using bearings to three identifiable charted points.
By U.S. NOAA (Cayo_Santiago-chart.png) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A fix can only be obtained by reference to the navigation chart, but if we have no chart, how is a fix ever to be obtained? This is one of the key challenges facing peatland restoration and monitoring. It is possible to measure, for example, hydrology, gas flux or water chemistry but without some reliable chart of ecological condition such measurements can only provide a form of dead reckoning which merely positions the site relative to its (generally ill-defined) starting-point. It is not possible to judge where this estimated position lies in relation to the desired course towards a restored condition unless this EP can be fixed using a chart of ecological condition.

The start is often confusing and progress may not follow the shortest route
On casting off from the starting point, the chart then highlights features relevant to navigation which will be encountered first. The initial stages of a voyage are rarely a true measure of the voyage ahead – indeed these early stages can seem somewhat chaotic as things are adjusted and everyone becomes familiar with, and settles to, their respective tasks. Only after passing beyond the protection of the harbour is it possible to determine the actual sea state and the true strength and direction of the wind. Based on this, the appropriate setting of the sails can be determined, a course appropriate to the conditions decided upon, and the crew can then begin to settle into their respective roles. On sailing beyond the breakwater the boat may, for example, encounter an unexpected headwind combined with a confused cross-sea, meaning that for a while the boat is forced to tack back and forth to make any progress. At any given moment the boat may seem to be heading in completely the wrong direction

The yacht Canada (left), skippered by Aemilius Jarvis, crosses tacks with Vencedor” on Lake Erie, near Toledo, Ohio, in the 1896 match-racing series from which “‘Canada emerged the victor. Both yachts are aiming for the same finish line but are currently sailing in very different directions because they are tacking in order to make progress to windward.
By Royal Canadian Yacht Club Archives (Royal Canadian Yacht Club Archives) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Similar confused conditions may be found in peatland restoration, particularly immediately following restoration actions, but the nature, direction and duration of such responses cannot be identified clearly unless charted positions can be established repeatedly for this transitional phase. Just as when a sailing boat is tacking, at any one moment the site may appear to be heading in completely the wrong direction but repeated fixes gradually establish that the site is indeed making progress along the desired course. Without such fixes, monitoring results may appear confusing and even counter-intuitive – indeed a short period of measurements may present entirely the wrong picture of overall progress.

It is therefore important to have a series of fixes which have been taken over an appropriate span of time relative to the overall voyage before any conclusions are drawn about responses to restoration actions. The first few years, or even the first one or two decades, may see the system experiencing a period of settling down where perhaps nothing seems to be happening for a time, or conditions even appear to be deteriorating further, or heading in unexpected directions. Under such circumstances it is important to recall that even 100 years is a very small time-frame within the ‘life-span’ of a bog. If the habitat were a forest under restoration management, the concept of reserving judgement on progress for a decade or two would excite little comment. It is reasonable to apply the same approach to peat bog systems because many have already enjoyed much longer ‘life spans’ than most surviving forests.

Measure the right things
It’s also vital when monitoring the progress of a voyage to ensure that the correct things are measured. There is an important difference between ‘course steered’ and ‘course over the ground’. A classic error in sailing is instructing the person at the helm to keep a navigation point “on the starboard bow” in order to clear a headland but fail to give an associated compass heading. The person on the helm duly keeps the navigation mark to starboard but does not realise that the boat’s heading is changing all the time because the boat is being swept to starboard by the tidal stream and will soon be on the rocks of the headland. Similarly, it is all very well monitoring the behaviour of the water table but if the ground surface itself is subsiding then measuring the water table alone does not tell us what we need to know about overall impact.

Being some 90% water in composition, when peat is dried it shrinks, and the more decomposed it is the more it shrinks. Peat which is relatively un-decomposed (e.g. H2-3 on the von Post scale of humification) shrinks by only a modest amount when dried because there are many long fibres which help to retain the overall matrix shape, whereas peat which is high decomposed (e.g. H8 on the von Post scale of humification) can shrink by as much as 50% when dried.

Peat cores for differing degrees of humification, originally 50 cm long, following extended air drying.
(Top) H2-3, (Centre) H5-6, (Bottom) H8.

The ultimate example of shrinkage resulting from drainage is the Holme Fen Post in Cambridgeshire. This cast-iron pillar taken from the Crystal Palace Exhibition was sunk into the raised bog of Holme Fen in 1848, just prior to drainage of the last great Fenland meres – Whittlesea Mere – adjacent to the raised bog. The post was attached to a constructed base embedded in the mineral soil beneath the peat, positioned in such a way that the cap of the post was level with the raised bog surface in 1848. The surface of the bog has subsided by more than 4 metres during the intervening 170 years.

Alan Bowley, recently-retired Natural England Site Manager for Holme Fen, indicating the degree of shrinkage at
the Holme Fen Post since the 1850s.

Thus it is important to recognise all the relevant forces which are acting on a peatland site both before it undergoes restoration and then subsequently after restoration begins. Monitoring just one or two of these relevant forces while ignoring other key forces, especially if they are slow-acting, can mean that crucial information is missed and a distorted view of responses is obtained.

Time and duration – vital elements of navigation
Time and duration are as relevant to sailing voyages as they are to restoration management. Time of day defines the state of the tide whereas time since departure gives an indication of the progress made along the planned course, as well as how much further there is still to go. Sailing voyages are generally shorter than peatland restoration voyages. The Holme Fen Post highlights the fact that navigation for a restoration voyage can mean establishing a monitoring system to measure system responses which is capable of being used time and again over periods of a century or more.

Photographs, such as the one shown below for the Holme Fen Post taken in the late 1800s, provide a (reasonably) reliable objective and repeatable method of recording certain aspects of such system responses. But to what degree can this be said of other monitoring approaches? Any monitoring system intended to provide evidence of responses 50 years hence must be capable of being repeated in a consistent way in 50 years’ time and must also be capable of analysis and interpretation in a manner which is consistent with the original baseline survey. Without such consistency, the two sets of data represent two independent (and potentially incompatible) surveys undertaken 50 years apart, rather than representing two fixed points on a single voyage. Furthermore, the data need to survive for 50 years, rather than being lost, or trapped on some storage medium which can no longer be read.

The Holme Fen Post photographed in 1910.

Funding-support systems for peatland monitoring are simply not geared to the type of long-term monitoring which is needed and which is exemplified by the really very simple but very effective long-term monitoring demonstrated by the Holme Fen Post. Current funding systems are similar to the skipper referred to earlier who, having safely negotiated the harbour entrance, points the bows towards the distant landfall then simply throws the navigation charts overboard and announces that, because there was no money to pay a navigator or indeed to purchase any navigational instruments, no further navigation will be required for the remainder of the voyage. This would be unthinkable for a sailing voyage. It is difficult to see how it is more acceptable for a peatland restoration programme. At the very least, robust monitoring systems need to be put in place at the start, and these systems need to be as robust as the Holme Fen Post. Specifically, they need to be systems which can be re-visited and measured effectively whenever a funding opportunity presents itself.

Monitoring the effect of monitoring – a particular peatland problem
Peat bogs are systems which are extremely sensitive to trampling and to solute inputs. It is therefore also important to ensure that the process of monitoring does not itself alter the system. In sailing, for example, a classic mistake involves taking a compass bearing while standing next to a large piece of metal such as a mast fitting, thereby ensuring that the bearing obtained is incorrect but without any obvious warning-sign that the bearing now being used for navigational decisions is false and perhaps dangerously misleading.

As an example of the same problem in peatland monitoring, a transect which we established on Coladoir Bog, on Mull, in the 1980s made use of discarded wooden road barriers in order to permit us to monitor our transects without causing trampling damage to the adjacent bog surface. Unfortunately, we did not realise at the time that the timber had been treated. Leaching of the treatment compounds subsequently killed the only recorded colony of brown-beaked sedge (Rhynchospora fusca) on the site…

Fiona Everingham monitoring the brown-beaked sedge (Rhynchospora fusca)
transect on Coladoir Bog, Mull, 1985.

Such impacts – though particularly trampling impacts – can very quickly mean that one is, in effect, monitoring the impact of monitoring rather than monitoring the impact of restoration management. This is particularly true of peatland because of their sensitivity to repeated trampling. Consequently, we now use snowshoes around any fixed transects we establish and use folding camp-beds on which we stand or kneel while recording these transects.

Fiona Everingham and Stuart Connop recording a fixed transect on Munsary Peatlands, Caithness, using snowshoes and a folding camp-bed. In the background, John Riggall and Jack Clough are setting up the camp bed for another transect.

Do improved measurements mean improved monitoring?
Assuming that pitfalls such as trampling and solute inputs can be avoided, the technology to record change is constantly improving. Thus, old R16 water-level recorders using paper charts on a clockwork drum have been replaced by modern pressure sensors and data-loggers. The fuzzy images from LANDSAT 4 have been replaced by the crisply detailed images available from Google Maps and what3words.com ESRI satellite view. Drone technology has advanced enormously since the use of helium-filled meteorological balloons or ‘inflatable kites’ with cameras slung precariously beneath.

R16 water level recorders installed on Glasson Moss, 1980.

John Riggall and Fiona Burd prepare a Stewkie inflatable camera kite for low-level aerial photography on Helwith Moss, 1982.

But while detailed measurements can now be obtained from a wide array of sophisticated instruments and mapping of peatland systems is possible to centimetre accuracy using drones and Lidar, does this necessarily mean that we can interpret these more detailed results more intelligently? If we cannot define precisely where we are on our chart – i.e. the precise state and condition of our peatland – how can we tell what these detailed measurements mean in terms of progress along the restoration voyage?

I fear that while we may be obtaining more and more impressive types of data, this improvement in data gathering has not been matched by improvements in the tools needed to interpret these data, specifically in terms of the ecological continuum from degraded site to a fully functioning and ‘restored’ site. We have neither the tools, nor often the duration of funding, required to ‘fix’ our position on our voyages of restoration. At present we are setting out from an unknown starting point, navigating on the basis of ‘estimated position’ for the first 3-5 years, then often abandoning all attempts at navigation (because the funding has ceased), or attempting to complete our restoration voyage using dead-reckoning alone, because we have no charts capable of enabling us to obtain a true ‘fix’. Until we have good reliable charts, I fear that we will remain ‘all at sea’…..


Bain, C.G., Bonn, A., Stoneman, R., Chapman, S., Coupar, A., Evans, M.,Gearey, B., Howat, M., Joosten, H., Keenleyside, C., Labadz, J., Lindsay, R.,Littlewood, N., Lunt, P., Miller, C.J., Moxey, A., Orr, H., Reed, M., Smith, P.,Swales, V., Thompson, D.B.A., Thompson, P.S., Van de Noort, R., Wilson, J.D.& Worrall, F. (2011) IUCN UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands. IUCN UK Peatland Programme, Edinburgh.
Available from: http://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/resources/188

Godwin, H. and Conway, V.M. (1939) The Ecology of a raised bog near Tregaron, Cardiganshire. Journal of Ecology, 27, 315-359.

Lindsay, R.A. (2010) Peatbogs and carbon: a critical synthesis to inform policy development in oceanic peat bog conservation and restoration in the context of climate change. Commissioned Report to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
Available from: http://www.uel.ac.uk/erg/PeatandCarbonReport.htm

Ratcliffe, D.A. and Walker, D. (1958) The Silver Flowe, Galloway, Scotland. Journal of Ecology, 46, 407–445.

The making of ‘Snowy Rooks’ woodcut

One of the most pleasing things about running a stall at the recent excellent IUCN UK Peatland Programme Annual Conference in Shrewsbury was the discovery that several fellow peatland people were also woodcut or linocut enthusiasts. I won’t name them because I don’t know whether they are ready to have their skills exposed to the public gaze but suffice it to say that some extremely enjoyable and instructive discussions took place during the coffee and lunch breaks. In discussing the various techniques which we have each explored, and given the wider interest shown in my ‘Snowy Rooks’ woodcut, it occurred to me that it might be interesting for people to see how this woodcut, with its associated printed card (both available through my Etsy store), was produced.

To begin with, two small holes were punched in the original drawing using the smallest setting on a leather hole punch. The drawing was then placed on a board of short-fibre MDF and the two holes in the drawing were marked onto the board. These marks were drilled using a small drill bit, then the holes in this board were used as guides to drill two holes in a second board of MDF. Small nails were then pushed through one board and the drawing was placed onto the board by slipping the holes in the drawing over the nails. After placing a sheet of carbon paper beneath the drawing, the areas of the design involving the palest blue were drawn round. The Board was then flipped over and the nails reversed. The drawing was again placed on the nails and the mid-blue colour areas were drawn round.

The nails were then transferred to the second board and the same process followed, but this time indicating the areas of grey, then the board was flipped over and finally the areas to be black were drawn around.

The four faces were then carved out to leave as raised surfaces only the areas relevant to that colour – although if an area is subsequently to be overprinted with a darker colour such areas do not need to be carved away because the dark ink will over-print onto the paler colour, obscuring it.

For both the proof-printing and final printing the woodblocks were positioned on a printing board and locked in place using glass plates positioned either side of the woodblock and raised to the level of the printing face using thin sheets of material – as seen here with the mid-blue block. This was to prevent the inking roller from rolling off the raised woodblock face and inking lower parts of the block.

After a certain amount of proof-printing to check that the carving was producing the correct effect, the four faces were cleaned and prepared for final printing. The palest block was positioned first as one generally prints in sequence from palest to darkest colours.

It was then inked using the palest ink.

Having inked the block, a piece of A5 card with holes punched at the same positions as the nails in the woodblocks was then aligned with the card on which the design was to be printed. The two pieces of card were locked together, matching corners, using large post-it notes (!)

The hole-punched card and its companion card to be printed were then lifted and the hole-punched card dropped over the nails of the woodblock.

A sheet of greaseproof paper (removed here for clarity) was then placed onto the card to be printed in order to provide a slippery and protective surface to the back of the card and a ‘barren’ (traditional Japanese pad for burnishing woodblock paper onto the inked block) used to press the card against the ink, thus helping to fix it in place.

A pad was then placed on the print and the printing press closed over it to press the card to be printed firmly against the inked block.

On opening up the press, the first print colour can be seen on the card.

The whole print run is then completed for this palest colour and the cards hung up to dry.

The next block face is prepared and the cards printed using the next-darkest colour – namely the mid-blue – then the grey block is positioned for inking.

It all still looks pretty much without shape or form once the first three colours have been printed and can be rather depressing at this stage, wondering whether the whole design has failed. It is only with printing of the black that it becomes clear whether the whole exercise has been a total failure or not. That first print from the black block is nerve-racking. Fortunately the ‘Snowy Rooks’ emerged looking more-or-less as I’d hoped. It’s always possible to spot potential improvements, but overall the relief that it had largely succeeded was enormous and merited a glass of wine – after I’d printed all 30 sheets and hung them up to dry…

Interestingly when the cards were transferred digitally to Spingold Design and Print – my local friendly commercial printers – for conversion to greetings cards, the colours developed a subtle purple tinge which I rather like, so I think if I run off any more prints I’ll need to mix a little magenta with the cyan to create this overall tint. That said, I really need to be working on my design for the sundew linocut which is currently rattling around inside my head…